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Friday, April 22, 2011


Tears rushed to Kelly's eyes. "Mom's not dead, is she? She's only missing. She ran away, right?"
The million-dollar question, the one Kelly and I and everyone else had been asking since Mom's disappearance.
"Mom's only missing," I said, trying to sound upbeat for Kelly's sake. "I thought this trial would prove she's alive, Dad's innocent."
"But it didn't prove anything," Kelly said. 
"We've got to do something about finding her ourselves."


ONE

Sunday, August 21

I was pissed.
Because after Dad's first trial for Mom's murder ended with a hung jury, he posted a half-million dollar bond, waltzed out of jail, and—get this—this is the part that pissed me—he threw a party in the backyard.
Can you believe it? How stupid is that?
I stood at my bedroom window, curtain inched back, and peered down at the patio where Dad's business buddies—players all—and their painted wives laughed, talked, ate, and drank.
Dressed in a T-shirt, shorts, and sandals, Dad was barbecuing on a huge brick grill that he'd had especially made for his cookouts. The smoke carried the smell of charcoaled steak and spicy sauce.
Dad must have yelled at Kelly, my fourteen-year-old sister. Suddenly she came hustling across the patio to his side. He bent and shouted into her ear. She nodded and ran for the house.
Dad hadn't missed giving a St. Patrick's Day, Memorial Day, Fourth of July, or Labor Day party since I could remember. Well, that's not exactly right. Since June of this year, he'd been locked in the county jail. Hard to throw a party from jail, right?
When I heard the loud rap at my bedroom door, I knew it was Kelly. "What?" I yelled.
She flung the door open. "What are you doing, Kyle?"
Tall and skinny in her black jeans and black concert T-shirt, a braided gold chain around her neck, she stood in the doorway. I pointed at the jeans and socks I'd laid out on my bed. "I'm getting ready for school tomorrow. You ready?"
"No."
For the last three weeks, Kelly and I had been in court every day for Dad's trial, watching, listening, praying. We hadn't had time to think about school—only about whether or not the jury would convict Dad of second-degree murder and nail him with a sixty-year sentence. Mom was dead. Would our dad die in jail, convicted of her murder? Would Kelly and I be practically orphans? Only our grandparents—Mom's mom and dad—left?
"I don't want to go to school," Kelly said, and slipped into the room, closing the door. She wore her wavy black hair ear-length, like Mom's. My hair is sandy like Dad's—before he started losing it. Kelly was an eighth-grader. I was a senior, eighteen in a few months. February.
I recognized a silver bracelet of Mom's dangling on Kelly's wrist. She'd been wearing a lot of Mom's things lately. "We've got to go to school," I said. "We've already missed over a week."
"Kids will look at me, say things behind my back, and ask stupid questions."
"If anybody bugs you, ignore them. That's what I'm going to do."
She plopped on the edge of the bed and stared at her hands. "Dad wants you to come down and eat."
I tossed my belt onto the bed. "I've got to talk to him. I've been trying since he got out, but I can't get him alone."
"Not with that bitch here."
"And when I do get him alone for a second, he doesn't hear what I'm saying."
"I'm not going back down there," Kelly said. "All those people looking at me so sad, telling me how they miss Mom, and how terrible it must be for you and me, not knowing where she is, Dad's been wrongly accused—everybody thinks that. But that stupid jury couldn't make up its mind." Tears rushed to Kelly's eyes. "Mom's not dead, is she? She's only missing. She ran away, right?"
The million-dollar question, the one Kelly and I and everyone else had been asking since Mom's disappearance.
"Mom's only missing," I said, trying to sound upbeat for Kelly's sake. "I thought this trial would prove she's alive, Dad's innocent."
"But it didn't prove anything," Kelly said.
"We've got to do something ourselves about finding her. That's what I want to talk to Dad about—and I want to know what's going to happen between him and Laura."
"She's wearing tight jeans and a hot pink blouse and high heels. Is Dad going to sleep with her tonight? In this house?"
"I don't know." I tilted my nose into the air, sniffing. "You wearing Mom's perfume?" It was a distinctive lavender fragrance.
"She always lets me."
"Quit doing that. The scent makes me think she's here."
Mom's disappearance and Dad's trial seemed to be messing Kelly up more than anyone else. Mom always called her a "live wire." I called her a "brat." I think the truth is that since our mom's disappearance, she'd become a lonely, frightened, confused kid—her life fucked up. Like mine. I needed to look after her more. Spend more time with her. "You want me to take you to school tomorrow?"
"Somebody has to," she said. "I haven't made arrangements for the bus to stop here."
"I'll take you."
She looked pleased. "I'd like that, I really would. I don't want to ride the bus, anyway—all those creepy kids staring at me."
"Be up early."
"Thanks, Kyle."
Kelly popped up and marched toward the door. "I'm locking myself in my room. If dad asks about me, tell him I'm sick."                       

After Kelly left, I sat on the edge of my bed and dialed Alyson's number. Her mom answered. "Oh, Kyle?" she said, as if she were already weary of my voice. "Is that you?"
"It is I, Mrs. LeClaire."           
I knew she'd catch the I. Mrs. LeClaire was a proper snob.
She could practically trace her ancestors to the Mayflower. If you cared to listen, she'd spend hours telling you how her family pioneered eastern Iowa on the Mississippi River. Mrs. LeClaire and her husband tolerated me as Alyson's boyfriend because my dad had money. To them, I seemed like a clean-cut escort for their daughter, one who wouldn't get her into trouble before she could go to college in the East and meet somebody with real money and a proper pedigree.
But newspaper headlines and TV stories linking my dad to infidelity, murder, and dismemberment had seriously jeopardized my standing with the LeClaires—especially with Mrs. LeClaire, who kept a close eye on her daughter. "Um...are all of you at home now, Kyle?" Mrs. LeClaire asked.
Translation: Is your dad, the murderer, back with you?
"Yes, Mrs. LeClaire. We're all at home. May I speak with Alyson please?"
"I'm not sure she's in."
Translation: I don't want her seeing you anymore.
"Would you check? It's important."
"Oh, I just remembered. She told me she was going to Loud Thunder for a picnic with some friends."
 Translation: You and Alyson are history.
"I talked to her a couple of days ago. She didn't say anything about a picnic—I thought she was coming over to my house this afternoon."
"I'm sorry."
Translation: Stay out of Alyson's life.
"Good-bye, Mrs. LeClaire."
I hung up, sensing the special relationship Alyson LeClaire and I'd had since tenth grade was over, and I didn't know how to save it. Do you really give a shit, Kyle?

I tromped downstairs, though the house and outside to the party.
The festivities were low-key, not the feverish excitement of one of Dad's typical holiday bashes. Most of the people sat at picnic tables, quietly eating steak and swilling beer from sixteen-ounce paper cups filled from a keg iced in a tub. The shock of Dad's trial ending in a hung jury—we'd all expected acquittal—had left everyone too scared and numb for real partying. We all knew the specter of a second trial still blocked Dad's path to total freedom.
As I started over to where Dad was charcoaling steaks, Frank Chambers, Dad's lawyer, slapped me on the back. "Hey, kid, what kind of football team is the high school going to have?" He rocked back on his heels, sloshing ice around in a tall glass of booze. With his slicked-back black hair and dark eyes, he always looked cool and confident. But if he was such a hotshot lawyer, why hadn't he got Dad acquitted?
"I don't know, Mr. Chambers. I've missed three weeks of practice."
"Got studs coming back?"
"Six seniors."
"You're looking good. What do you weigh now?"
"One-ninety."
"What, you're six-four?"
"Yes, sir."
"You should tear 'em up this year. First game is Friday, right?"
"Right."
"I'll be there."
I nodded. "I have to get something to eat, Mr. Chambers."
He dropped a hand on my shoulder. "Look, kid, not to worry. I'm going to get your dad out of this thing. Just like I got his bond reduced so he could make bail."
"That was a good move," I said. "Now that he's out, we can work harder on finding Mom."
"That video the Cameron lady gave the police should've never been allowed in court. It only clouded and confused the jury's judgment—proved nothing. I'll get the thing thrown out next time."
"I hope so."
"Don't worry."
I slipped away and headed toward the smell of steak and smoke.
Dad—a red-bearded giant with thinning nappy red hair—was bent over the grill, wielding a long barbecue fork. Charcoal smudges and grease spots smeared the front of his huge white chef's apron. Green letters across the apron proclaimed: ANOTHER UNSUNG HERO. Jailhouse food had slimmed Dad down, but he probably still weighed 285. He'd been an all-Big Ten linebacker at the University of Iowa and a MVP. Bad knees kept him out of the pros. With his size, red beard, and solid belly, he looked like a contender for the world title of all-star wrestling.
I loved him, but I didn't know what to think of him. That's weird, isn't it? I mean, he might have killed Mom—I hated the thought. And I hated that he was hanging with a blonde girlfriend. Like Mom didn't matter.
And he didn't have time for Kelly or me.
But I still loved him. He was my dad.
Through the steak smoke, Dad spotted me about ten feet away and squinted. "Where you been? Where's Kelly?"
I sauntered up to the grill with a fake smile plastered on my face—I didn't want him to know how really pissed I was. Beads of sweat covered his forehead. His beard was bristly, flecks of gray sneaking in. "I've been getting things ready for school," I said. "Kelly's inside. She doesn't feel good."
"I need you kids to make a showing. Prove to everyone this thing your mother's done to us hasn't ruined us as a family. We're still tight."
"Kelly doesn't like these people."
"She's stubborn—like her mother. I'm going to have trouble with her." He speared a steak with the fork and flipped it over, grease dripping into the fire and flaming. "Got a couple of good ones left. Get a plate and eat."
"Sure... Nice party."
He smiled. "Still got a few friends left in this town."
"Um, after we eat, I want to work on Mom's Lincoln. I've got a new battery for it. I'd like to drive it some."
He glanced at me with his ice-blue eyes. "What's wrong with your Mustang?"
"Nothing. I'd just like to tinker with the Lincoln. Keep it running for Mom. For when she comes back."
He thought about that, then said, "Go ahead."
Around this town—Big River, Iowa—Dad was known as King Donovan. Radio, TV, and billboard ads for his dealership proclaimed, "King Donovan's Kar Korner is the only place in eastern Iowa or western Illinois to buy a new or used car!"
King wasn't Dad's real name. Raymond was, but nearly everyone called him King. Only Mom—Katie—called him Raymond, especially when they fought, which was often.
I cleared my throat. "You suppose later tonight, after all these people leave, you could find a minute so we can talk?"
"Maybe tomorrow."
Frustration kicked in, but I tried to stop my voice from rising. "Dad, we've got to do something ourselves to find Mom. The police aren't going to."
"You think I don't know that?"
"We should've started long ago."
"Who knew she was going to do something stupid like this?"
"We could put her picture on milk cartons, like they do for missing kids. What if we print our own pictures of Mom and somehow get them posted at rest stops on Interstates all across the country?"
"We'll talk tomorrow."
"What about Laura? Is she going to live with us?"
"Tomorrow, Kyle!"
A drunk stepped between us. "Hey, King, babe, you got one of them steaks ain't dead yet? You know, rare?"
Always the salesman, Dad wrapped his arm around the guy's shoulder. "Have I got a deal for you, Harvey!"
I clenched my fists and gritted my teeth. Pissed again.
You get pissed often enough, gradually you get bitter. Bitter is like when something bad's been happening for a long while. The bad crawls under your skin and festers. It never goes away. I was bitter because my mom was missing—dead or alive, I didn't know. My dad had been accused of her murder but his trial had proven nothing. He seemed glad to have her gone and didn't seem interested in finding her. If I didn't do something, the truth about my mom's disappearance might never be known. Kelly and I might never put our lives back together.
You'd be bitter, too.